What could possibly go wrong with MOOCs? The Seven Deadly Sins as Strategy

Backer Jacob  envy

The next verse of the epic poem “Year of the MOOC” will almost certainly be a recounting of a fall from grace if I am correctly reading my recent discussions with dozens of institutional leaders. Whether there will be enlightenment and ultimate redemption is less clear at this point, but what should be a path forward for thousands of institutions could just as easily lead to despair and ruin.

Not because MOOCs are a bad idea, mind you. If there were ever a confluence of innovations that could perfect learning, the simultaneous maturing of  MOOCs, social networking,  and big data are it.  Daphne Koller makes the point in her now ubiquitous Coursera speech: We have known for thirty years (since Benjamin Bloom’s landmark paper “The Two Sigma Problem”) that the master classroom is a way to universally improve learning when compared to traditional classrooms.  The only thing holding us back was the cost of personalizing the learning experience for each student.  MOOCs allow master classrooms be operated effectively for large numbers of students.  I just spoke with edX’s Anant Agrwawal, and he cites a half-dozen other research results confirming better learning enabled by MOOCs.That’s the innovation, and that’s what makes MOOCs such a great idea.

The very existence of MOOCs could be a pathway to think about value in a new way, to looking at the constraints that existed before Udacity, Coursera, and edX and wondering what the next world would be like. It may not turn out to be paradise but it will be a world without those constraints. Instead, too many institutions are reverting to the seven deadly sins of higher education.  Beginning with envy.

In Abelard to Apple I blamed envy for many poor decisions by otherwise insightful academic leaders. Higher education has opted into a destructive, needlessly competitive class system in which schools at the top of the hierarchy are chased by everyone else in a rigged game that ultimately hurts students. If you are a state school, you envy one of the famous public research universities. Technical universities envy MIT and CalTech, Liberal arts colleges envy whichever institution is  at the top of the pyramid whose riches they covet. It is institutional envy pure and simple.  It has been the ruination of hundreds of otherwise promising colleges and universities and has helped drive American higher education to the brink of unsustainability.

Here is an excerpt of my recent conversation with someone in a senior leadership role at a college — in the Middle to use Abelard to Apple terminology –  that is beginning to produce its own MOOCs:

Q: Why are you producing your own MOOCs?

A: Why should we let [deleted] do all the MOOCs? We are just as good as them. Why let them get all the credit?

There are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the common thread is that this school is trying to buy its way into a game that is rigged against them.  At the very least they will spend a lot of money (that they do not have) to produce a lot of MOOCs (that are not very good).  Yes, there will be a few that are really great, but those few do not justify the level of spending they are thinking about.  Most importantly they will fail because they have defined success as enrolling 100,00 students or more. Why is this an important number:  because [deleted] enrolls 100,000 students in its courses.

It’s a small leap to consider the effect of other deadly sins:

  • Lust: “100,00 students?  Wow!”
  • Gluttony: “I want them all”
  • Greed: “That should be worth a lot of money.”
  • Pride: “No one can do it better.”

There is no agreement on the the sins that belong on the list. I took theology courses from Thomistic scholars who had a decidedly medieval view of these matters. Aquinas for example was not a big fan of including sloth (“I don’t have to teach?”)  in the list preferring instead to go for a more popular malady afflicting monks who spent their lives in prayerful isolation (“I am so tired of dealing with unprepared, unmotivated undergraduates”).

Nor is there agreement on how tightly bound together these things are.  Can you have envy without pride?

Who is virtuous in this new world? At the risk of promoting unwanted scrutiny, I would have to say that San Jose State University is doing the right thing.  San Jose State decided to conduct an experiment in blended learning using the edX version of the MIT 6.002 course entitled Circuits and Systems. It could not have been an easy choice.  SJSU faculty had to sacrifice their hallowed position on the stage and redefine their roles in the classroom:

SJSU students have been viewing and using online materials as homework, including lectures, quizzes and virtual labs available through the edX platform. Then they go to class to work through problem sets with their instructor, thereby flipping the conventional approach of lectures in class and problem sets at home.

Initial reports are encouraging.  A course that historically flushes out 40% of the enrolled students in the traditional format, retains 90% in the flipped format.  Professors and students alike had to adjust, but maybe that is the price of virtue.  It is a price worth paying, because simply lusting after the 100,000 students is not a strategy that will be rewarded in this pre-MOOC world  or the next.

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